French President François Hollande flew to Mali yesterday to support French troops fighting Islamist rebels in the Sahel nation, and visited the famed ancient city of Timbuktu that was recaptured from al-Qaeda-allied fighters six days ago.
Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for defence, foreign affairs and development, was greeted by a group of dancers and singers at Timbuktu airport and then went on to visit the Grand Mosque in the Unesco World Heritage Site city.
"If I could have one wish, it would be that the French army stays in the Sahara, that they create a base here," said Moustapha Ben Essayati, one of the locals who showed up to greet the French delegation.
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"I'm really scared that if they leave, the jihadists will come back. If France had not intervened in Konna, we would no longer be talking about Mali." Konna is the town captured by insurgents earlier this month, a move which triggered the French intervention.
Heavily-armed French soldiers in armoured vehicles and Malian troops yesterday ringed Timbuktu's ancient mosque, which is built from mud bricks and wooden beams. French and Malian flags fluttered from telephone poles.
Local people chanted "Vive La France" and praised Hollande for France's military intervention in its former West African colony, which after three weeks has pushed Islamist fighters occupying the north of the country into more remote desert and mountains.
"I'm so proud of François Hollande, we have got our old lives back," said Khalifa Cisse, the muezzin who calls the faithful to daily prayer at the mosque.
The international community has greeted the liberation of Timbuktu with relief, as the sharia-observing Islamist occupiers had smashed traditional ancient Sufi mausoleums in this seat of Islamic learning, calling them idolatrous. They had also destroyed up to 2000 of about 300,000 priceless ancient manuscripts held in the city. However, curators say the bulk of the scholarly texts are secure and safe.
During his one-day visit to Mali, which will also take him to the southern capital, Bamako, Hollande was expected to outline the next steps of the French military operation, which has so far retaken the main towns of the north from the rebels.
Hollande has said that the French operation – which has 3500 soldiers on Malian soil, backed by warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles – wants to hand over to a larger UN-backed African force which is still in the process of being deployed.
Sustained French airstrikes have forced fighters from the Islamist militant alliance that was occupying northern Mali to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. The rebels there are also believed to be holding seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.
The United States and Europe are backing the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of Islamist jihadists using Mali's Saharan north as a launch pad for international attacks.
The US and European governments are providing training, logistical and intelligence support to the French-led operation in Mali, but have ruled out sending ground troops.